Ad Tech Execs Weigh in on Coronavirus Ads, Google and Twitter, and Misinformation

Earlier this month, digital ad juggernauts Google and Twitter reversed earlier decisions not to publish ads related to Covid-19. Both companies initially banned ads related to the virus out of fear that malicious and negligent actors would flood their ecosystems with misinformation or seek to make a quick buck on the virus by selling fake tests or boosting prices on essential items.

Yet Google and Twitter caved to pressure from businesses, which need to reach customers as much as ever amid an unprecedented economic downturn, and Democrats, who said the policy would give President Trump too much power to control the narrative on the political response to the virus via earned media.

I turned to a number of ad tech execs for their expert perspectives on the risks and rewards of digital advertising on this extraordinarily high-stakes issue. While expectedly optimistic about the benefits of coronavirus-related messaging for savvy brands, the business leaders diverged on the responsibility and capability of Google and Twitter to monitor the veracity of the content they host. They also made distinct cases for advertising at a time when brand messaging requires extra sensitivity, arguing that both brands and their customers have something to gain if businesses provide accurate information, focus on customers’ needs, and showcase the ways they are adapting in a time of crisis.

Can Google and Twitter be trusted to prevent false content related to Covid-19?

Answers diverged wildly on this question, as some execs said brands should seek safer environments than the social giants, others expressed a measured amount of trust in Google and Twitter’s capacity to root out fake news, and still others said preventing false content is impossible and up to readers to sort through.

“As an advertiser, the safer bet is to partner with trusted and reliable sites that have teams of journalists vetting every piece of content,” said Terence Scroope, vice president of insight at video ad firm Unruly.

Mike Addonizio, vice president of paid media at omnichannel ad firm Digilant, said Google and Twitter are aware of the harm misinformation can cause on this issue, meaning advertisers can trust that coronavirus-related content will be “closely monitored.” Ad tech firm Freestar‘s president and CEO Kurt Donnell echoed that sentiment, saying Google “can be trusted,” though the content vetting process will be imperfect.

Referring to the “fundamental insurmountability” of eliminating all false content on platforms teeming with information when the truth itself changes day to day, customer sentiment-driven ad journey firm ViralGains president and COO Dan Levin said Google and Twitter cannot be trusted, nor expected, to prevent all false information from reaching users. But Levin said that does not mean publishers should suspend coronavirus-related advertising as long as their content is legal and in line with guidelines released by government authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control.

What’s the cost of banning coronavirus-related ads? Might we be better off without the risk of misinformation?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ad tech execs touted the benefits of advertising during the Covid-19 outbreak. They mostly presented two arguments: firstly, that consumers actually stand to benefit from Covid-19 advertising, as a means of accessing both information and crucially needed goods; and, secondly, that brand advertisers are among the most trustworthy sources of information in this time, as it is very much in their economic interest to root out misinformation themselves.

(The execs did not focus on political advertising, though political advertisers also have essential information to share with readers, and while spin is inevitable, Republicans and Democrats widely seem to accept some spin from the other side in order to broadcast their own messages.)

Matt Barash, head of strategy and development at AdColony, underscored the importance of brands not backing down from messaging during challenging times. Pointing to Amazon’s successfully aggressive strategy during the Great Recession, Barash said the moment offers cunning and sensitive brands the opportunity to “convey stability and staying power to their customers.”

Studies on the effects of Covid-19 conducted by audience intelligence firm DISQO show consumers are turning to digital channels to find everyday household goods for the first time, boosting the utility of digital advertising right now for both brands and their customers, said Stephen Jepson, executive vice president of advertising effectiveness at the company. “Allowing marketers to advertise products that are helpful in the context of a global pandemic — provided the information is truthful — is a positive shift for advertisers and audiences alike,” he said.

What’s more, brands are among the most trustworthy sources of information at this time, Levin said. “Businesses — especially large brands who have the capital to do large-scale paid media ads — have armies of individuals who work tirelessly to sniff out misinformation and not propagate it, or else their reputations and future revenues are on the line.”

How do brands stand to benefit from advertising right now?

Some of the execs emphasized the need to strike a sensitive tone, but they were mostly bullish on the benefits of ads for brands smart enough to accentuate the ways they are adapting to economic shutdowns, focus on fostering long-term loyalty, and center customers’ needs.

“This is a key time to focus on long-term brand building as opposed to short-term activations,” Scroope said. He advised brands to focus on emotional messaging to drive loyalty during the time of the virus and beyond.

Addonizio and Donnell underscored featuring brand adaptations in ads, especially key provisions like pickup and delivery that make doing business with a brand possible at a time when many storefronts are closed. “For many brick-and-mortar businesses, advertising the fact that they are still open for pickup or delivery could very well be the difference between staying in business for the long run and a potential bankruptcy,” Donnell said.

Levin pointed to a witty Uber campaign that touted the benefits of social distancing. “We need more of this sort of advertising, and the cost of Uber not having been able to run such an ad might have been a cost to society in the form of more infectious cases.”

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.